Qioptiq logo Raytheon

No Holiday From History – Dangers of Reducing Air Power Capability By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

(Six years after I wrote and published what follows and due to the still high relevance and importance of the piece today in the context of a combination of further anticipated defence ‘cuts’ and/or ‘programme delays’, the announcement of which we anticipate late November or early December, together with the wider Cabinet Office led Security and Defence refresh announcement that is anticipated around the same time, I thought that might be timely to repeat one of the then most widely read and appreciated piece I have written in the long running UK Defence sequence. Timely too as on Monday I will be at RAF Coningsby for the annual Air Combat Power Visit):

Almost a year since SDSR [Strategic Defence & Security Review] 2010 paper was published by the Coalition Government and little over a year since Air Marshal (Timo) Anderson presented the 2010 Slessor Lecture entitled ‘The Royal Air Force in the 21st Century’ what follows is, I hope, a timely reminder reasoned by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and that in terms of defence capability and deterrence requires that in respect of UK defence, there to be no holiday from history.


I have not been alone in condemning the manner in which the SDSR 2010 process was conducted or the subsequent perception that the process has condemned far too much UK defence capability to the scrapheap. Others with much greater entitlement than me have also expressed severe doubt and used similarly harsh words to condemn many aspects of ‘SDSR 2010’ as they rightly feared devastating consequences for Britain’s air and sea power capability. The warning was clear for all to see and yet for all the concern that we have expressed, it seems that our ill-advised Coalition Government is prepared to forgo air and maritime capability, the first call of defence, in favour of severe cuts to both as it sticks firmly to its long held ‘boots on the ground’ myth.


Shortly before SDSR 2010 was formally announced the Royal Air Force, through Air Marshal (Timo) Anderson who was ACAS [Assistant Chief of the Air Staff] at the time, gave what was most probably the most serious warning to be heard in the lead up to the defence and security review that the danger of playing down the role that air power plays within overall UK defence capability was that, play down national air power defence capability too far and the Royal Air Force might soon find itself unable to defend our air space, unable to counter threats from hostile states, to conduct foreign military campaigns either as part of our wide NATO commitment or maybe even to defend the rights of those in our overseas territories and elsewhere to whom we also have a duty of care to protect.


Since then, as we already know to our cost, and due to the apparently ruthless nature of ‘government’ in terms of airpower capability cuts we have, in terms of defence capability, moved from one geo-political crisis requirement to another.


And yet, for all the damage that the Coalition Government and its predecessors have done to UK strategic air power capability, it is equally true to say that whatever the nation has demanded the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy both have somehow been able to meet. That in itself is a miracle but in doing so our overall capability in terms of equipment and manpower has been stretched to the bone.


We take our hats off to all that have engaged in Libya just as we also do those serving in Afghanistan, on the High Seas defending UK trade routes and our dependent territories including the Falkland Islands, the wider role that the UK plays within the NATO alliance and of course, defending of the United Kingdom skies and seas. Today, dependent on where we choose to look across our armed forces structure we see devotion to duty undaunted combined with motivation destroyed.


The stark message that Air Marshal Anderson gave in the [Air League] 2010 Slessor lecture last year (AVM Anderson went on to become the first director general of the Military Aviation Authority) in the House of Commons that year should have been warning enough. Moreover, as befits the qualities of the speaker, his speech was delivered with a combination of stealth, knowledge, deep seated sincerity and first-hand experience.


In my own long personal experience covering and supporting defence and military capability, the defence industrial base and defence exports, I can say that without doubt I have never known a more stark warning made to government by a senior member of the Royal Air Force over the perceived consequences of potentially damaging cuts to air power capability.


The speech itself was in essence a plea to government that we should avoid going down a road that we might later regret. That message was as real and necessary as it also was very timely in my view – a bleak warning of the level of risk that we might take should we allow air power capability to be devalued further than it already had! Moreover this was a detailed reminder by the AVM Anderson of the deterrence value of air power capability and of how this is also required to play out in keeping aggressors at bay before a shot has been fired in anger.


That the real value of air power as deterrent capability is maybe less easy to quantify directly to the public, should not hide from the value of our having it. Air power is about far more than just fast jet capability and QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) capability, it is equally about a mass of other sophisticated capability support that the Royal Air Force provides such as all the various forms of ISTAR capability, tanker refuelling, transport, rotary, battlespace management and all aspects of training.


But even if the deterrent capability value may sometimes be difficult to quantify or measure, if we stop for a moment and think all will see and begin to understand the wider UK national and political interests that the deterrent effect of what UK air power capability provides plays and has played in maintaining peace in the UK and Europe over the past two generations.


Walk away from maintaining air power in terms of both deterrence and you might as well walk away from the whole notion of providing defence. Walk away from holding appropriate levels of deterrent capability in the form of air and sea power and I am for one would believe that the ultimate price to be paid would be vast. Indeed, given the expectation that government resources will remain thin for at least the next ten years and most probably well beyond the dreamed of ‘Future Force 2020’, we may soon be left with resources so stretched that we could no longer defend our own islands.


This paper concentrates on air power but I take nothing away from the vital role that maritime power plays within UK defence and the international role that both play. We ignore at our peril the vital role that the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy play and that this is not just related to defence of the realm. It is equally about the role that air and maritime capability plays within the vast NATO theatre and for which, as a perceived rich nation state that we are, it is right that we embellish large and established commitment.


The so called Arab Spring should have taught us much but sadly it seems that the UK Government prefers to ignore the lessons of history. In the end, I would say that experience will always teach us that no one can ignore lessons of history – Libya then should have been an object lesson of this and a timely reminder to doubters. Translated, that means that we risk endangering air power capability if we run down the Panavia Tornado GR4 force too early before its ultimate replacement in the form of Typhoon is truly multi-role ready. It is one that says that in terms of ISTAR capability, losing Sentinel when we pull out of Afghanistan risks seriously endangering overall ISTAR capability, that rotor capability needs to be further enhanced, that Sea King replacement within the SAR (Search and Rescue Helicopter project) operation should be retained by the RAF and Royal Navy and that acquiring more UK built EH101 Merlin helicopters would provide the best answer and so on. It also means that placing too much belief that the planned ‘Future Force 2020’ provides all the answers is misplaced.


During 2011, having lost a further two squadrons of Panavia Tornado GR4 aircraft, lost a fleet of near eighty Harrier GR9 aircraft and that are now resting up in Lincolnshire on a care and maintenance basis ahead of a ridiculous proposed sale to the USA in order to be broken up for spares, having over the past year lost the total fleet of Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance aircraft, the two remaining Nimrod R1 reconnaissance aircraft plus the whole of the proposed fleet of rebuilt Nimrod MRA4 fleet, having been told in SDSR that post Afghanistan the whole fleet of Sentinel aircraft acquired just a short time ago will be scrapped following the end of our involvement in this theatre we are left with the knowledge that Royal Air Force Air Power capability has already, or will soon be, reduced to its lowest level in three generations.


Soon, if the SDSR 2010 process is followed all the way through to the letter we will, under Future Force 2020, have less fast jet capability in the UK than might be found on a single Nimitz class aircraft carrier in the US. In saying this let me please remind that the US Navy has eleven aircraft carriers and that we are talking here US Navy fast jet capability and that this ignores massive air power capability held by the US Marines and US Air Force.


I reminded earlier that air power is not just about fast jet capability. Far from it and yet SDSR 2010 has or will obliterate, with a handful of exceptions, the entirety of many Royal Air Force ‘Force Elements’. Today, each and every element of Royal Air Force air power capability can be found serving the nation – be this in the long term Afghanistan theatre, in Libya, protecting UK airspace or within our dependent territories such as the Falklands. You should not be surprised that I view our already weakened and depleted air power capability to be stretched beyond the bounds of decent well thought-out defence strategy.


Sitting within the Cabinet Office we find the National Security Council in whose hand and leadership, much of what occurred in SDSR 2010 was writ. Sir Peter Ricketts will soon be walking away – moving on to pastures new in the Paris Embassy leaving what he has done in respect of devastation of defence capability in his path. Left behind in the Cabinet Office, there remain the two arch deacons who are most opposed to defence in all its many forms, f Francis Maude MP and Oliver Letwin MP. While we may rightly wish the new Secretary of State for Defence, the Rt. Hon Philip Hammond MP who with no past experience in defence has quickly been dubbed a numbers man (Forensic Phil) the best of luck we may need to wish our military chiefs a lot more than that.


Meanwhile we fight on with one half of our still crucially important Tornado GR4 fast jet fleet is committed in Afghanistan and Libya. Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft are also deployed and with personnel and combat aircraft levels very stretched and training resources weakened, the Libya campaign has proved that there are limits to what the capability we have can do. Yes, the training capability at RAF Valley and RAF Coningsby may have improved, but in terms of providing levels of trained personnel that we require, these are still a long way short of being considered desirable.


In his Slessor lecture last year, Air Marshal Anderson detailed the extremely wide range of Royal Air Force operational capability and requirements that ISAF forces in Afghanistan call on. He reminded that the RAF Regiment continues to provide force protection and to enable operations at Kandahar and Bastion airfields to continue just as they still do now both in Afghanistan and Libya. Anderson also reminded his audience that “the RAF contributes disproportionately to the delivery of air operations and the provision of intelligence to operations in Afghanistan and to RAF officers command in the joint and Coalition environments” – a reference that constantly reminds how much Britain pushes above its weight in the commitment to NATO whilst so called allies such as Germany do so little with vastly greater quantities of capability.


Listing in that lecture the great many operations in which the Royal Air Force is currently or has recently been involved and stressing always the value and necessity of maintaining strong ISTAR capability, Air Marshal Anderson covered a vast array of activity in which the RAF plays a vital role in supporting the ideals of our nation. He told us, for instance, that “high end capability is not synonymous with Cold War ‘white elephants’ no matter how many screeds of populist copy might profess otherwise”.


One year on and with Libya still fresh in the mind, those words hold a prophetic message for all of us. Air Marshal Anderson had gone on to say that “they [high end fighter capability] are an essential component of any fighting force that aspires to operate within anything other than comparatively benign environments”. These facts, although unarguable, contain a difficult message for those of us attempting to bang home to an ill-informed ‘public’ that still sees the Royal Air Force as being about huge and unnecessary cost.


Time and time again it is UK air power capability that has served the nation first and throughout the required mission and I am in no doubt that it will do so again and again. Dare we allow our government to squeeze the air power capability even further in order to better proportionately match the much lower levels of defence capability held by some of our European partners and allies? I think not and that history will tell us that the answer is that we cannot and must not weaken defence further.


Dare we ignore that as we stand now, some nine years before the situation gets even worse in the perceived Future Force 2020, a time when at the present rate of decline we will then have such limited and stretched levels of air power capability that the security and defence of the nation really is threatened? Are we to allow the potential loss of any elements of ISTAR capability and that enables us to know where our enemies are to be further depleted? Are we to ignore the lessons that history teaches us in respect of having deterrent capability and that in the knowledge that we have it will prevent our would-be enemies from attacking us?

Do we really know from where new potential enemies and conflicts might even in future emerge?


Defence of the nation is equally bound up between Air and Maritime capability and Ground Forces. The Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army provide Britain not only with defence but also with the very confidence that we need to build and strengthen our economy. History also tells us that future conflict is inevitable. Soft Power and Hard Power are inextricably linked and so too are the wider and newer elements of security that we all have to realise as being very necessary. There can be no compromise and no further room for weakening of any element of defence and security capability. Indeed, we must recognise the grave errors of judgement made in SDSR 2010 and begin the process of reversing them.


(This was first published on 18th October 2011 as UK Defence [39] in the current volume. Please note that Commentary will return on Wednesday)

CHW (London – 22nd October 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



Back to article list